Varsity brass to face criminal trial for Bt brinjal agreements with Mahyco

Karnataka HC dismisses petitions filed by UAS-D Vice-Chancellor and Registrar

The Karnataka High Court has ruled that there is a prima facie case for prosecuting the heads of the University of Agriculture Science, Dharwad (UAS-D), for signing agreements, allegedly in violation of the Biological Diversity (BD) Act, with a private firm to develop and deliver varieties of insect tolerant Bt eggplant (brinjal) using local varieties of brinjal.

Justice A.S. Pachhapure made these observations while dismissing the petitions filed by R.R. Hanchinal, Vice-Chancellor, and H.S. Vijaykumar, Registrar, and S.A. Patil, former V-C of the UAS-D, challenging the cognisance of offence taken by a magistrate’s court in Dharwad against them based on a complaint filed by the officials of the National and State Biodiversity authorities.

The High Court said the petitioner-accused had not produced any materials to establish that they had taken the mandatory approval from the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) as per the BD Act for carrying out research and development work on Bt brinjal for M/s Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd (Mahyco).

Observing that as a foreign company, Monsanto Company of the U.S., which held 26 per cent shares in Mahyco, required prior approval from the NBA as well as the University for venturing into the agreements as per the BD Act, the court said violation of this mandate was an offence as per Section 55 of the Act.

The court also held that there was no material on record to establish that the UAS-D had followed the guidelines issued by the Ministry for taking up collaborative research works in Bt brinjal. The agreements were signed in 2005.

Not required

Meanwhile, the court said the magistrate had not examined the complainants before taking cognisance of the offence, as the Code of Criminal Procedure does not require such procedure with regard to public servants. The court also held that prior sanction was not required to prosecute the V-C and Registrar as they were not under the control of the State or Central government.

However, Justice Pachhapure said the V-C and Registrar had “protection” from the legal proceedings under the UAS Act as long as they could establish before the magistrate that agreements signed in contravention of the BD Act were “acts done in good faith.” This aspect could at the most be a defence at the trial and could not be a reason to quash criminal proceedings, the court said.

C. Achalendra Reddy, Secretary, NBA, Y. Chakrapani, Deputy Conservator of Forests, State Biodiversity Board had first complained before the Principal Civil Judge (Junior Division) and Judicial Magistrate First Class in November, 2012. The magistrate court had taken cognisance of the complaint and had issued summons to the accused persons.

Stayed by Bench

However, the Dharwad Bench of the High Court had stayed the magistrate’s order, following petitions by the UAS-D and its top brass. With the High Court now dismissing the petitions, the magistrate court can now proceed further against all the accused — the UAS-D top brass, M/s Mahyco, its Managing Director and other directors, M/s Sathguru Management Consultants Pvt. Limited, which played a role of facilitator to agreements providing services related to technology transfer, its MD and other directors.

Without approval

It has been alleged in the complaint that Mahyco is not only guilty of genetically modifying local brinjal varieties made available by the UAS-D without approval by the NBA but also guilty of laying proprietary claim to the modified varieties of seeds. The allegations levelled against the accused, if proved in the court, would attract imprisonment up to five years or fine up to Rs.10 lakh.

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